Professing Education


Book review: Conflicting Paradigms in Adult Literacy Education: In Quest of a U.S. Democratic Politics of Literacy

Author: George Demetrion

Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: New Jersey

Jill Grose

Brock University, Ontario

Conflicting Paradigms in Adult Literacy Education is an apt title for a book that attempts to reconcile disparate ideas and values covering a broad range of topics. Not only does Demetrion include a discussion of adult education and the ideologies that have created different epistemological stances on its policies and practices over the last 15 years, but he also incorporates lengthy discussions on the nature of democratic education, U.S. political traditions, the Deweyan concept of learning as growth, and the strengths and limitations of educational research paradigms that have molded modern conceptions of what is deemed truth in an age of accountability.

Demetrion's book is not an easy read but it is helpful and illuminating for those who wish to gain a greater understanding of the political and philosophical tensions that have given rise to adult literacy policies in the U.S. While many of the specific movements and organizations cited will be familiar only to those who are immersed in the field of adult literacy education, the ensuing analysis of the disparate approaches and policies is relevant to a broader discussion of how conservative and democratic ideologies play out in the specifics of curriculum and practice in a number of educational arenas.

To ground his discussion, Demetrion provides a helpful historical overview of three distinct perspectives that have informed adult literacy education: the Freirian school of participatory education views adults as change agents who must be given voice to determine their own needs and purposes for engaging in education. New Literacy Studies maintains a social constructivist perspective in its emphasis on the ways in which adults develop diverse literacies to make sense of the world contextually. The third perspective is that which is driven by U.S. federal initiatives that link funding of adult literacy directly to performance outcomes within the workplace. Lack of agreement as to the purpose of adult literacy is at the root of these disparate viewpoints: finding a mutually agreed upon purpose is part of the book's mission.

Demetrion's thesis is to provide common ground between these conflicting paradigms, drawing upon a "renewed political culture… that embrace[s] the democratic, constitutional, and republican values reflective of the nation's founding political ideals" (p.2). He turns to Dewey's pragmatic philosophy for inspiration, particularly Dewey's concept of learning as growth, his vision of a democratic citizenship, and his notion of inquiry as a means through which social phenomenon can be examined, following scientific principles of investigation. Demetrion's vision of a return to a democratic ethos and active citizenry while upholding the republican values of the public good to advance adult literacy education is fraught with challenges but is essential for its survival. As he states, "if democracy as articulated in this study does not provide the core political identity for adult literacy in the quest to move from the margins to the mainstream, than one wonders what sources of value and influence will come to define the politics of literacy" (p. 294).

What is of interest in this book is that its discussion of the competing perspectives and conflicts that have evolved in the field of adult literacy is framed by the distinctly different paradigms of social science research. Chapter 9, which examines these research traditions based on the work of Mertens' text Research Methods in Education and Psychology: Integrating Diversity with Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (1998), reveals the ways in which epistemologies can conflict in creating what is understood as "knowledge," resulting in politics that affect practices. Postpositivist (or positivist) research is cut from the same cloth as current U.S. federal policy with its emphasis on skills-based education; interpretive or constructivist research is parallel to the New Literacy Studies which support the view that adults make sense of their own lives through multiliteracies; and participatory research traditions are akin to the Freirian school of education as emancipation. When seen in this light, it becomes clear how the field of adult literacy education experiences the conflict and tensions arising from competing perspectives. When program funding is tied into meeting standards or proving, in empirical terms, how curriculum (which might be based in constructivist ideology) has met externally defined objectives, the debate over the purpose of literacy education can become heated.

Demetrion has subtitled his book "a quest for a democratic politics of literacy." Indeed, his quest is probably quixotic, given the current government's positivist outlook. One need not look any further than the quotations Demetrion provides from the U.S. Department of Education's Strategic Plan for 2002 to 2007:

…the field of education operates largely on the basis of ideology and professional consensus. As such it is subjected to fads and is incapable of cumulative progress that follows from the application of the scientific method and from the systematic collection and use of objective information in policy making. We will change education to make it an evidence-based field." (p 205)

While Demetrion's search for common ground among conflicting paradigms is laudable, the current demand for accountability and skills-based learning threatens to continually erode any effort to value education as a catalyst for social or moral progress. This book, however, in drawing together the many conflicting arguments and ideologies, raises important questions about the impact of politics on practice and the need for a renewed national vision for adult literacy education. Those interested in educational policy issues, adult literacy, US politics, and educational theory can choose much to read, consider, and debate in this text. Ironically, as they do, adult learners in classrooms, churches, and community centers throughout North America will have no choice but to continue their daily struggles for basic literacy.